Pitching in for parks 

How much should developers pay for play?

The debates over growth in Missoula—and how it can be managed wisely and fairly—continue to grow at least as fast as the city itself. One week it’s infill, the next it’s suburban sprawl. Up this week?

The parks department has proposed changes to Missoula city and county subdivision regulations that would create a new land appraisal method when developers opt to pay cash-in-lieu instead of dedicating parkland in major subdivisions. Currently, state law requires subdivisions with more than five lots to dedicate 11 percent of the land to parks, but with government approval developers can instead pay the value of that 11 percent to local parks departments. Since 1978, the state Department of Revenue (DOR) has performed the appraisals for those transactions, but the proposed revisions would require developers to hire independent appraisers for the job.

The change is needed to make sure the government is getting fair market value for the parkland that developers opt not to turn into parks, says Missoula Open Space Program Manager Jackie Corday.

“I would argue that we’re not getting fair market value right now. And to meet the intent of state law, and for parks to be getting what they should be getting, I think this is a necessary step,” she says.

The DOR is limited in its ability to appraise land at current values because its base values are linked to the six-year tax cycle. This means that a subdivision appraised now by the DOR is subject to January 2002 property values, not current rates—and those numbers won’t be updated until 2009. Regional Manager Jim Fairbanks, in the DOR’s Missoula office, says his office has performed the appraisals for free all these years even though it’s not really his job, because no one else was appointed to the job.

“I just did it to save people money and accommodate people,” he says. “It’s not really part of what would be considered to be DOR responsibilities.”

In the past year, Fairbanks has handled about a dozen such appraisals, but he says he doesn’t have much time to devote to the task, and private appraisers could provide “a specific up-to-date appraisal of value.”

“I think it’s probably a good idea,” he says. “It may end up costing [developers] a bit more, but if it enhances the parks’ budget it would be good.”

Fairbanks’ statement hits the debate over the proposed revisions squarely on its nose: Critics say added appraisal costs for developers will translate into higher costs for home buyers, while proponents say the added cost is worth it if it results in more and improved parks.

County Commissioner Barbara Evans, an opponent of the change, says she’s tired of government mouthing support for affordable housing while tacking on costs that work against developers’ ability to provide it.

“I’m not at all happy that this has been submitted to us,” she says. “I will be surprised if the commission doesn’t pass it, but I will vote against it…At the same time that I recognize government’s need for funds, I just think if we have a real commitment to affordable housing, we ought to really be committed to it.”

Tom Dunton, government affairs chairman for the Missoula Building Industry Association, echos Evans’ concerns.

“It’s not realistic to think that these fees are something that every builder or developer can absorb,” he says. “Ultimately, all of the fees raise the cost of the end product.”

In response, Corday points to a state statute that requires cash-in-lieu appraisals to be based upon the “fair market value of the unsubdivided undeveloped land.” With the current setup, she says, state law is not being followed, and developers are benefiting at the expense of local parks. She also says Evans’ argument could be applied to everything from sidewalks to environmental health regulations, but that developers should pay their fair share of the costs of creating a livable community.

“The government is supposed to be looking at the greater good of people, and parks is certainly one of those things for the greater good,” Corday says. “Think how important parks are to the average Missoulian. They’re very important as far as a quality-of-life issue.”

Corday says the cost of a private appraisal varies depending on the appraiser’s certification and the project, but that such costs—ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand for larger subdivisions—wouldn’t be a major burden. Appraiser Tom Stuckey gives the same approximations for the added cost and says “if you want a realistic value of the parkland, that’s the only way to get it.” However, he adds that it could affect affordable housing, and so “you’re darned if you do, darned if you don’t.”

Besides the affordability issue, Dunton says developers are willing to pay their fair share but that it’s frustrating when the costs and processes for assessing that share become moving targets.

“We’re not afraid of raising the bar, but we need to know where that bar is,” he says.

Several cities and counties throughout Montana have adopted subdivision regulations similar to Missoula’s proposed changes. Jennifer Madgic and Candi Beaudry, in the planning departments of Gallatin and Yellowstone counties respectively, both say their regulations were changed to ensure developers were paying full market value. Missoula’s move to do the same began when the Master Parks and Recreation Plan adopted by Missoula city and county in May 2004 asked for a reevaluation of the way cash-in-lieu appraisals were performed. In 2004, two of nine major new subdivisions in the county and two of five in the city opted to pay cash-in-lieu instead of dedicating parkland, says Denise Alexander, senior planner at the Office of Planning and Grants.

The money collected from cash-in-lieu appraisals goes into a fund to improve existing parks and purchase land for new ones, although Donna Gaukler, director of Missoula Parks and Recreation, says there isn’t enough money in that fund to buy any parkland—something the revisions could change.

“It could have substantial impact on our ability to develop parks along with the neighborhoods,” she says.

A public workshop to discuss the revisions will be held Wednesday, May 4, in City Council Chambers from 6:30 to 8 p.m. A public hearing held by the Planning Board will take place at 7:30 p.m. on June 7, and the City Council and County Commission will also hold as-yet unscheduled hearings.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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